A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.
Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)
Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:
All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.
But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.
More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.
Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.
Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.
The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.
I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.
In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.